Who bombed Marrakesh?

The plot thickens at the trial of the nine men accused of carrying out  the atrocious bombing of the Argana cafe in the Place Djama al Fna in Marrakesh last April, in which seventeen people were killed, including eight foreign tourists.  In court this week Adil-el Othmani, one of nine men accused of carrying out the bombing has retracted his confession and claimed that he had been set up by the Moroccan intelligence services.

According to Associated Press:

#0000ff;">“From the glass enclosure in the courtroom where the defendants were held, Othmani declared his innocence at the start of the trial and said the bombing was the work of the Moroccan intelligence service to stop a wave of pro-democracy protests.

#0000ff;">‘ They created a terrorist event and then caught those responsible in a short amount of time to show they are the perfect ally to the West in the fight against terrorism,” he shouted in English.”’

Having been in Marrakesh only last year, I was particularly shocked by the Argana atrocity in a city that remains one of my favourite places in the world.

At the time the bombing also came as something of a wild card.   There hadn’t been anything like it in Morocco since the Casablanca bombings in 2003, and the atrocity went against the grain of the pro-democracy movements that were spreading across North Africa, including Morocco.

From a strictly qui bono basis it did nothing to benefit the emerging pro-democracy ‘Movement for Change’ that was pressing Morocco’s King Mohammed VI to reform the constitution, and seemed more likely to play into the hands of the more reactionary opponents of such reforms.   Nor was it clear why jihadists would carrying out a bombing less than two weeks after the King had released a number of Salafist prisoners serving long-term prison sentences.

The official framing of the bombing also seemed shaky and somewhat quick on the draw.  Initially it was blamed on ‘Al Qaeda in the Maghreb’ (AQIM),  which then issued a statement denying responsibility.   A Youtube video in which AQIM threatened the Moroccan government with attacks turned out to be an older video from 2007.

AQIM is an al-Qaeda franchise for whom adjectives like  ‘shadowy’, ‘nebulous’ and ‘murky’ might have been invented.   It originated in Algeria as an offshoot of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), a radical Islamist group established by remnants  of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) towards the end of the Algerian civil war in the 1990s.

The GIA carried out some of the worst massacres and atrocities of the civil war, but its leadership was also heavily infiltrated by Algeria’s powerful military intelligence service, the Département de Recherche et de Sécurité (DRS).

Foreign journalists, and Algerian army and secret services deserters have accused the secret services of using the GIA and other groups to carry out bombings and massacres of civilians during the the civil war for its own political purposes.   These actions may also have involved staging abductions and killings of  Europeans and blaming them on ‘Islamists’ and ‘jihadists’ in order to shore up foreign support for the Algerian government.

In the late 1990s, remnants of the GIA formed a radical splinter group called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which became the nucleus for Al Qaeda in the Sahara.    According to the British writer Jeremy Keenan and others Amari Saifi alias Abderrezak ‘el Para’ is a former DRS operative who subsequently became a founder member of Al Qaeda in the Sahara – the nucleus of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, which began abducting Europeans in the Algerian Sahara in 2003.

Still with me?  It is possible to glean some method amid the acronyms and word soup. For many governments in the Maghreb, the presence of AQIM is a useful way of getting western military aid and political support, by enabling themselves to present themselves as allies in the ‘war on terror.’

Algeria was particularly keen to galvanize international support during its savage ‘dirty war’ against Islamist insurgents in the 1990s, and it wasn’t the only government to play the ‘Al Qaeda in the Maghreb’ card for its own political purposes.

This isn’t to say that groups like AQIM or AQIS don’t really exist or function merely as puppets with no autonomous life of their own.   State ‘infiltration’ and manipulation of such organizations doesn’t necessarily work so crudely.   It’s quite possible for such groups to have multiple agendas, and contain ‘genuine’ operatives and agents acting on behalf of the state – and the former may not even be aware that they are being manipulated.

Nor is ‘the state’ a monolithic entity, especially when it comes to the secret services, who generally function well below the radar of publicity and accountability even in democracies.   So we shouldn’t be surprised by al-Othmani’s claims that he was manipulated, which doesn’t necessarily mean that are true.   Today he and his co-accused are no longer described as AQIM operatives but members of an unspecified ‘banned religious organization’ and ‘admirers of al Qaeda.’

Perhaps the trial will reveal who they really are and what their motives were, but then again, it might not.